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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Short Article

When closed teacher questions are more useful than open-ended ones

primary, secondary and adult

Nick Bilbrough

Are closed questions a teacher controlling device which limit the capacity for creative student use of language, or are they rather an opportunity to provide well contextualised language input and to scaffold learner talk?

The question in the sub-title is an example of a closed question. By that I mean that it provides a predetermined set of answers to choose from (in this case two) and does not encourage the listener to be creative, and to come up with their own language in the response. Compare this to an open question such as 'What do you think about closed questions?' where the listener has an infinite range of ways of responding.

When I first trained to be a teacher 15 years ago, I remember leaving my training course and starting my first job with the over-simplified viewpoint that open questions were always good to use as a teacher, and that closed ones were always bad. My feeling was that, whereas the former maximised the student use of language and challenged them to produce language for themselves, the latter meant that the learners were merely repeating what the teacher had said, and there was no guarantee that they would be able to produce similar language in 'the real world' without the teacher.

As I got more experienced in teaching and eventually moved into teacher training these ideas stayed with me. However, recently two factors have led me to totally re-examine this point of view.

The first is my humble attempts to understand the amazing work and ideas of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. In 'Mind in Society' (1978) he makes the point that learners can only imitate language that is within their level of development. This idea of imitation is exemplified in the following exchange: the student needs to have some level of understanding of the meaning and form of the present continuous for future plans in order to make the decision to use it.

Teacher: Sorry Hye Jun, you're going to Spain, or you've already been there?
Hye Jun: I going to Spain.

Copying, in contrast, is reproduction without necessarily understanding the meanings behind one's utterances. This may occur in a drill for example.

T: Listen. I'm going to Spain. Repeat. Hye Jun?
Hye Jun: I'm going to Spain.

Of course both of these processes may occur in language classrooms and in other language learning contexts. I would suggest however that as teachers, we should be providing more opportunities for imitation than for copying, and that closed questions are a format which lends itself more to the former rather than the latter.

The second factor is my experiences as an intermediate learner of Chilean Spanish, living in Santiago and working for International House. The following account illustrates how I feel that closed questions, used by more advanced speakers when interacting with me, have been beneficial to my acquisition of Spanish.

The city was hot and dry and we needed a trip to the sea . Emma hired a car and we stuffed it with surfboards and nappies and buckets and spades and suncream and, leaving our cramped and untidy Santiago flat behind, we set off on the 2 hour journey through the mountains for the blue Pacific.

We pulled into a petrol station on the way and filled up and, as is the norm in Chile, this was done without us having to leave the comfort of our car. The attendant even washed our windscreen too and, as we debated whether or not we should be giving a tip, another attendant came over to talk to us.

'¿Quieres pagar en efectivo o con tarjeta?' (Do you want to pay in cash or by card?) he asked.

' En efectivo' (by cash) I replied spontaneously.

This was a very simple exchange, and those were pretty much the only words that passed between the attendant and me on that day, but as we drove off through the Chilean countryside, I kept playing them over in my head. It had struck me that this was the first time I had ever used the expression 'en efectivo' when interacting naturally in Spanish. The attendant had asked me a closed question, and in doing so had provided me with a model of language which I could immediately use in my answer. This was a key moment in the long process of acquiring, as part of my active language, the term 'en efectivo'. It was the moment in which I was challenged to activate a language item which up to that point had only been known passively. Had the attendant instead asked me an open question such as 'Como quieres pagar?' (How do you want to pay?) I would not have been provided with the resources to use "en efectivo', and would probably have resorted to the less appropriate, and less correct 'con plata' (with money).

Language items do not generally move directly from being completely unknown to totally known. There is usually a long process of change reaching from total incomprehensibility of a language item, to being able to use it appropriately in all its uses (something which is perhaps never achieved by anyone). These stages are simplified and summarized below.

  1. The learner does not understand the language item, even when he or she understands the context in which it occurs.
  2. The learner understands the language item provided that the contextual clues surrounding it are strong.
  3. The learner is able to produce the item where it is modelled effectively, and the length of time between the model and production is not too great.
  4. The learner is able to produce the item in appropriate contexts, without modelling.

Of course this is an immense oversimplification of the processes involved in language acquisition. Some stages may be omitted, and some may take far longer than others, and be broken down into sub-stages. Neither is the process always a linear one: learners may slip back into previous stages if they do not receive sufficient levels of input or opportunities for output. However, the petrol station attendant's question clearly helped me to move from stage two to stage three.

Now my ability to use the term 'en efectivo' has moved into stage 4: that is, if I am asked 'Como quieres pagar?' I am generally able to respond with 'en efectivo' ,where appropriate, without having to have it modelled for me first. How much of my present ability to use this form independently is due to previous moments like the above, where I was challenged to use it in dialogue with a more advanced speaker?

Vygotsky's ideas about learning and development would suggest that there is a strong relationship between these two distinct stages of language acquisition. He writes of the zone of proximal development, which may be defined as (1978: 86) 'the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving...in collaboration with more capable peers'. In other words, what we are able to achieve today, when our language level is stretched through interaction with more advanced speakers, is indicative of our future language level when we work without the support of the more advanced speaker.

I believe that during my time spent in Chile, interaction with advanced (native) speakers of Chilean Spanish, like the petrol station attendant, has improved my ability to interact in that language, and that the use of closed questions has played an important part in that improvement. They must surely have played an important part in language development since the beginnings of human interaction whenever two people at different levels in a speech community meet. In fact, if you think about it they are a very natural way of facilitating communication, where the use of open questions fails to communicate.

A: Where would you like to eat?
B: Sorry?
A: Do you want to eat inside or outside?
B: Oh.. outside is good

If closed questions are useful tools for facilitating communication outside the classroom, it seems reasonable that they should also be used where appropriate, alongside open questions, inside the classroom. Teachers will find numerous ways of building them into natural interaction with the learners, but what follow are three example classroom activities where their use is more systematic.

FVygotsky, L.S. 1978.Mind in Society. Harvard University Press

(1) The closed question restaurant

Level: Beginners
  1. Get students into the context of restaurants in the most appropriate way possible for your group.

  2. Assume the role of waitress/waiter and, in so doing put students into the position of customers.

  3. Working with one student, use a string of closed questions as a way of providing language input that he or she can immediately use in their replies. Each time you ask a question hold up one cuisennaire rod to represent each of the choices you are offering. As the student makes his or her choice give them the appropriate rod. (If you don't have cuisenaire rods you could use different coloured pens or sweets, but make sure the student doesn't eat them immediately!)

  4. The dialogue might work something like this:

    T: Do you want something to eat or something to drink? (T mimes if necessary and hold up two different coloured rods)

    S: Something to drink (T gives student red rod)

    S: Something hot

    T: Do you want tea, coffee or chocolate? (3 rods this time)

    S: Coffee

    T: Do you want it with milk or without milk?

    S: Without milk

    T: Do you want it with sugar or without sugar? Etc
  5. The student will end up with a range of different rods. Their task now is to go through them all as a group and recall what each one represents (ie 'something hot', 'coffee', 'without milk' etc) . Resist the temptation to help them at this stage. If they really pool their resources they should be able to remember precisely.

  6. If you feel that they are ready for some activation at this stage then dish out handfuls of rods to pairs of students and encourage them to experiment with their own closed question restaurant dialogues.

(2) Building a life

Level: Elementary to Intermediate

Preparation: Decide on a set of closed questions to ask to your group which contain language items which will be comprehensible but challenging. See below for an example for an elementary group.

Benefits: Vocabulary development and writing skills

  1. Show the students a picture from a magazine or some other source which shows a man in the autumn of his life.

  2. Begin asking the closed questions to the class. After you have asked each question choose an individual to answer it. This way everyone is kept on their toes. You are aiming for the student to repeat the part of the question that she thinks is appropriate. You may need to mime or explain meanings where necessary.

  3. When you have finished get the students to individually write down everything that they can remember about the person.

  4. Have them pool their ideas in pairs or small groups.

  5. Ask them to write a text about the life story of the person. They should include as much of the information they can remember from the closed questioning stage but also incorporate their own ideas.

Note: The closed questions below do not follow the traditional format for questions which tends to be taught. There are two reasons for this. Firstly this type of 'intonational' question is very common in spoken language, and secondly it provides a model of the form required in the answer without the student having to manipulate it. Contrast this with:

Teacher: 'Did he go to to the local school, or was he sent away to school?'
Student: ' He went to the local school'
  1. He was born in a small village, or a big city?

  2. He went to the local school, or he was sent away to school?

  3. He enjoyed school, or he hated school?

  4. When he left school he joined the army, or he went to university?

  5. He fell in love with somebody, or he didn't fall in love with anyone?

    They got married, or they didn't get married?

    They were happily married, or they used to row a lot?

    They had three children, or they didn't have any kids?

  6. He worked in a bank, or he was an artist?

  7. He enjoyed doing the garden, or he did a lot of sports?

  8. He kept on working until he died, or he retired from work?

  9. He was quite a religious man, or he didn't believe in God?

  10. He was happy in his old age or he was a bit lonely?

(3) The Dating Agency

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Preparation: Decide on a list of closed questions containing descriptive language that will be challenging for your group. The list below is for an upper-intermediate group. Find a selection of pictures of people from magazines. You will need one picture for each pair of students.

Benefits: Vocabulary development

  1. Place one of the pictures on the board where everyone can see it. Give the list of closed questions to a confident and competent student. Ask her to read out the questions one at a time to you.

  2. Give your answer to each question with reference to the picture on the board. Check that they understand the meaning of the vocabulary by giving examples as you go.

  3. Give each pair a picture of a person and the closed questions list. One student asks the questions (and makes a note of the answers) while the other student answers, thinking about the picture they have in front of them.

  4. Give students the task of trying to find an appropriate partner for the person in their picture. They mingle around with their list of adjectives (they should leave the pictures behind on their tables) and look for the person who is the most compatible.

  5. Conduct some feedback on this. Who was most suited to who? Why?

Instead of matching picture profile with picture profile, students can also be asked to find a real person in the room who would feel comfortable going on a date with their picture profile person. When students have chosen the picture profile that they would most like to be with, they are then shown the picture that the profile originated from.

  1. Is s/he fairly slim, or is s/he a bit chubby?

  2. Is s/he quite a brave person, or is s/he rather timid?

  3. Is s/he quite self confident, or is s/he rather self-conscious?

  4. Is s/he fairly open-minded, or is she a bit straight laced?

  5. Is s/he fairly conventional, or is s/he quite rebellious?

  6. Is s/he hip and trendy, or is s/he a bit square?

  7. Is s/he quite generous, or is s/he a bit on the stingy side?

  8. Is s/he a bit over-sensitive, or is s/he as tough as old nails?

  9. Is s/he very talkative, or is s/he a bit reserved?

  10. Is s/he quite a tidy person, or is s/he rather untidy?

  11. Is s/he quite calm, or is s/he a bit quick tempered?

  12. Is s/he an enthusiastic person, or is s/he a bit of a moaner?

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